The six preparatory practices (jorcho, sbyor-chos) derive from Atisha, who learned them from his teacher in Indonesia, Serlingpa, and then transmitted them to Tibet. They are preparation for any meditation session that we do. We find them discussed in the standard texts of the lam-rim graded path. In The Graded Stages of the Path: Personal Instructions from Manjushri (Lam-rim 'jam-dpal zhal-lung), the Fifth Dalai Lama says to do all six of these preparatory practices before each meditation session in the morning. Then later in the day, if doing further meditation sessions, do just the last four.
The six are:
1. Sweeping and cleaning the meditation room and setting up representations of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind
2. Obtaining offerings without hypocrisy and setting them up in a beautiful arrangement
3. Laying out a proper meditation seat, sitting in the eightfold posture and then, in a positive frame of mind, taking refuge (safe direction) and reaffirming our bodhichitta aim
4. Visualizing a bountiful field for spiritual growth (tshogs-zhing) – people often refer to this as a merit-field or guru-tree, but literally it’s a field in which, in a sense, we plant seeds that will grow into our spiritual growth
5. The seven limb prayer and mandala offering
6. Infusing our mental continuum with inspiration from the lineage masters in accord with a specific guideline instruction for making requests.
What is quite significant about this is that just doing these six would be quite sufficient for starting your Buddhist practice.
Sweeping and Cleaning the Meditation Room
The first part of the first of the six preparatory practices is to sweep the place where you’re going to do practice and toss out the garbage. This is something that is emphasized over and over again. Why would you want to clean your room? Well, it’s a way of showing respect. It’s showing respect to the teachings and what you’re actually doing and respect to yourself in doing this. If what you have around you is chaotic and dirty, it tends to affect your mind, and so your mind becomes a little bit chaotic. If everything is orderly and neat and clean, the mind tends to be more orderly and clean.
Think about that. Is that true? You see, this is the process that you always have to do. Don’t just take a point in the teaching and say “Oh yeah, yeah” or at best write it down – most people don’t even write it down (or text it to somebody). But think about it: “Is this true? Does it make any sense?” We need to look at every single point and examine: “Does it make any sense, or is this just nonsense?” If you think it’s nonsense or you don’t even consider whether it’s nonsense or it makes sense, what benefit does it have? Why are you studying it?
A perfect example: Here in Moscow you have probably one of the worst traffic conditions of any city in the world. When you are stuck in traffic and it’s all chaotic and nothing is moving and every car is trying to change lanes, and so on, what is your state of mind? Do you feel calm and open and clear? Or does it affect your mind? Think about that. Then it becomes clear, I think, that when things are chaotic around you, your mind gets chaotic, you get nervous – it’s not a calm state externally or internally – they affect each other. And even if we don’t get upset and our mind isn’t going crazy in the traffic, it’s oppressive; you feel heavy. It’s not that you feel light and uplifted by the traffic, do you?
So sweep the room, clean the room – or vacuum, or whatever you do – and make everything neat and orderly. I do this every single day in the room that I meditate in and in my office where I work. Every single day I do that without fail, like you brush your teeth. And while you do that, don’t just be the janitor; try to transform it as well. You’re not the cleaning lady. So we imagine that the dirt or dust is our unawareness – so-called ignorance – unawareness of reality, cause and effect, and so on, and the broom is the understanding of voidness. Then once you collect all the dust, you transform it with OM AH HUM into the nectar of deep awareness, then the understanding of voidness, and then you feed it to Yama, the Lord of Death, in his mouth. He’s the garbage can.
That’s the Real Thing version of it as Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche used to teach, but obviously that’s not really very easy to do. If we don’t have some understanding of voidness and we don’t understand this whole transformational process in tantra, we might find it a little bit silly or artificial. So what would be a more acceptable preliminary version of this, Dharma-lite version of this? Well, just simply think of the dirt as the dullness and chaos, and so on, in your mind and in your emotions, and we’re sweeping that away with correct understanding, and then we try to have a more positive attitude.
If you view the obstacles and so on as a horrible enemy and magnify how terrible it is and “How terrible I am for being like that,” this can cause a big problem. That’s guilt. It’s like the dirt. “Dirt’s so horrible. Eww! Get it out of here.” Right? What is indicated here is that somehow you transform it. So you say that “Well, okay, I have these obstacles, and there is this dullness,” and so on, but in a sense one has a… How to describe it? It’s like a sense of equanimity. Equanimity doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything about it, but you’re not upset about it.
It’s like for instance with the sufferings of old age – which I experience – and what happens? Your eyesight diminishes. Your hearing diminishes. Your short-term memory weakens. You walk into a room and you forget what you walked into the room to get. And people’s names, forget it! They’re difficult. You’re not going to remember people’s names. So you can think “Oh, this is so terrible” and “I’m so bad for forgetting and for being like this,” and you get angry with yourself, and it’s a very negative state of mind. It leads to depression. Well, what do you do? The attitude that is helpful here is “Nothing special. What do I expect with getting old (older)?” And with a friendly attitude toward it, you deal with it and compensate and try to use little tricks to remember things, and so on.
My own private guideline instruction is that to remember people’s names – I use this all the time – I go through the alphabet and sound out in my mind the first letter of the alphabet, etc., and usually the letter that the person’s name begins with sounds familiar, and then I remember the name (not all the time but a great deal of the time). I thought I’d share that with you.
The point is to then, with a friendly attitude, you deal with it. You apply some sort of opponent. The same thing with cleaning the room. “I am cleaning away all this dullness in my mind and trying to get my mind sharp, and so on. And okay, I accept it. This is going to be there every day.” And you deal with it; you throw it out. That transforms it from the idea of this being so horrible and dirty to a more beneficial state of mind. So don’t just be the cleaning lady.
The texts mention five benefits:
1. Your own mind becomes clean and tidy and neat. This is what I was explaining.
2. And so will others’ minds who enter your room, your space. So it’s being respectful to others who might visit you. You don’t just welcome them into chaos and dirt.
3. The deities and protectors will be pleased and happy to visit. In other words, if you were inviting a really special, special guest – your teacher or somebody really, really important (your mother, for example) – you would want to clean up your house. They would be more pleased to come. Be respectful to them. Right? Your mother wouldn’t be pleased if she went to your apartment and saw it was an absolute filthy mess, so the Buddhas wouldn’t be pleased either when you are inviting them in your visualization.
The last two advantages are a little bit difficult on a Dharma-lite level:
4. You build up the positive force to be reborn with a handsome body.
5. And you build up the positive force to be reborn in a pure-land Buddha-field (dag-zhing).
In other words, if you make everything around you very pleasing, you yourself will be pleasing in terms of what you look like to others.
Just one last point, His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes not only the importance of this type of cleaning before you do any practice, but he says that he washes his hands and face before ever reading a book. And before doing any meditation practice, he also washes his hands and face out of respect for what he is doing. This is a very helpful guideline – respect, neat, clean.
Setting Up Representations of a Buddha’s Body, Speech and Mind
The second part of this first preparatory practice is to set up representations of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind. Often we hear this translated as “set up an altar.” I always find this word altar a little bit strange. It comes out of either Christianity or in religions where they sacrifice a lamb or a human being on the altar. So it’s a little bit funny to think of it like that. But rather the term that’s used is a shelf for making offerings, so what we want to do is have a nice, clean, respectful place. You’ll find in almost all Tibetan or the various Mongolian homes that there always is some sort of – well, there’s no other word than altar, some sort of special place.
One can ask what is the benefit or the purpose of this. This is representing the objects that we’re showing respect to, indicating the direction – the refuge, the safe direction – that we want to go in, and so it’s a very good reminder. And also because it is an object of respect, then – unless we are very crude in our manners – it naturally makes you behave a little bit more nicely in its presence. You’re not going to smoke cigarettes and get drunk and carry on in all sorts of naughty ways.
Now, of course it’s difficult to have a separate room for meditation if you’re living in just one room or in a Mongolian ger tent. So at least one portion of the room should be an area of respect. But what is always stressed is that we shouldn’t use making our altar into something that is an object of competition – that you try to have a better one, a richer one, more elaborate one than others have. In fact, his Holiness the Dalai Lama is quite critical of particularly monasteries and temples that try to outdo each other and everybody has to build the biggest one and the most elaborate one and the most gold and jewel offerings on the statues, and so on. The texts of course say that you build up a tremendous amount of positive force doing so. Nevertheless, living as refugees and living among very poor Indians around you, it’s really very gross, very inconsiderate. So simple and nice is what is recommended rather than ornate and elaborate.
Serkong Rinpoche himself was very much against all these ornate ritual objects and so on. When we traveled around in the West and he gave initiations, instead of having a very ornate vase he would use just a milk bottle or anything that the people had. You’re transforming it anyway in the visualization, so as long as you have some sort of basis, there’s no need to bring something which is super expensive and ornate. It would only attract people to steal it.
The traditional form that this takes is having a representation of a Buddha in the middle. This could be a painting or a statue, whatever we might have – a picture, a photograph. (Nowadays that’s quite simple. You can just print something off of the internet. So there’s no excuse that we can’t get something.) And that would be in the center, and then a text to the Buddha’s right (from the point of view of the Buddha), and a stupa or a vajra and bell to the Buddha’s left. The Buddha himself would be representing the body; the text of Dharma, the speech of a Buddha; and the stupa and vajra and bell, the mind. And remember you’re not just setting up something decorative. Try to bear in mind what it represents.
The Tibetans always put up pictures of the teachers. It shouldn’t be that the Buddhas are in the middle and the gurus are to the side. The spiritual teachers are the source of all the teachings, and so they should be the central figure or higher. The point of it is we have something that reminds us when we walk into the room, when we see it, of what direction we’re going in life and that we’re trying to develop the qualities of a Buddha’s body, speech, and mind.
If you have only one room and you put this in your bedroom, if that’s the room that you’re sleeping in, it shouldn’t be that this is at the foot of your bed – you know, with your feet facing toward them. That’s considered disrespectful. The point is to show respect. So in whatever way you can show respect to this, this is important.
One thing in terms of the Dharma books – or books in general – they’re not a table. You don’t put things on top of them, not even your mala, your rosary of counters, and you don’t just put them on the floor. If you need to put them on the ground, you put a piece of cloth or something underneath them, basically so that they don’t get dirty.